How to Use Maps to Avoid Avalanche Danger

How to Use Maps to Avoid Avalanche Danger

This write-up originally appeared at the Gaia GPS web site and is republished below with authorization. – Ed.

Past the boundaries of ski resorts, untouched powder and the guarantee of journey beckon skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers, mountaineers, and hikers into the backcountry. On the other hand, traveling in the backcountry is not without having risk—25-30 individuals die in avalanches just about every 12 months in the United States by itself. When avalanches are without doubt hazardous, they have a tendency not to occur randomly. Backcountry vacationers can mostly avoid avalanches with careful route scheduling and terrain management.

Traveling in avalanche terrain is an inherently perilous action. You ought to not journey in avalanche terrain right up until you and your partners go through avalanche basic safety instruction and are knowledgeable in the use of avalanche basic safety gear (beacon, shovel, probe). Maps serve as a dietary supplement to avalanche basic safety schooling, not a substitution.

This write-up covers how to discover avalanche terrain by observing: Facet and Elevation Topography Terrain Traps and Avalanche Paths.

How to Use Maps to Avoid Avalanche Danger

Photo: Jack Atkinson

A Limited Primer on Avalanche Terrain

If you are not acquainted with determining avalanche terrain, the Avalanche Canada on the internet terrain identification tutorial is a good location to start. Our report provides you some examples of how you can determine and review avalanche terrain on a map. Though a map is an vital setting up device, keep in mind that it can be hard to fully understand terrain exclusively from a 2D map. You can health supplement your knowledge of a route with photographs from guidebooks or on-line resources like PowderProject and with 3D resources like Google Earth. And, most importantly, continually assess terrain as you vacation, as subtle facts could not be wholly conveyed by the map.

Aspect and Elevation

Avalanche hazard often differs by factor and elevation. Many avalanche forecast facilities use an avalanche hazard rose to forecast the distribution of the distinct avalanche problems at different areas and elevations. The danger rose, in conjunction with your map, is a good put to begin when setting up a tour. Use the forecast to assistance you decide a safe and sound objective for the working day, relatively than selecting a site very first.

Below is an case in point from the Utah Avalanche Center forecast. Underneath 9500 feet, the avalanche hazard is “low,” a subjective categorization meaning human-activated and all-natural avalanches are not likely. Retain in intellect that situations can adjust fast, avalanche forecasts are imperfect, and accidents and fatalities have transpired on “low” hazard days. Elevation and facet are only a person component of mitigating avalanche danger.

How to Use Maps to Avoid Avalanche Danger

Element can give you critical clues about hazard from wind loading and sunlight publicity. If the winds have been coming from the west, you could be extra worried about wind slabs on easterly facets. On sunny times, photo voltaic radiation can contribute to wet free avalanches on photo voltaic facets. And, significantly in continental and intermountain snow climates, persistent slabs could be current on all elements.

When scheduling your tour, note the elevation on the map by reading the contour intervals and review it with the danger rose. Or, far better but, produce a route and glimpse at the elevation data.

Slope Angle

When avalanche skilled Bruce Tremper introduces terrain administration in his must-read through reserve, Keeping Alive in Avalanche Terrain, he prospects with a quote from Canadian avalanche expert Karl Klassen. Klassen claims, “The snowpack is a capricious and erratic acquaintance who you by no means get to know quite perfectly. The terrain is a steady and predictable good friend that you can usually count on.”

Caveats riddle avalanche textbooks and avalanche safety lessons. Snow science has less hard rules than backcountry skiers would like, and discussions of slope angle are no different. Avalanches are dynamic, conditions dependent, and can manifest on a huge assortment of slopes. These inconsistencies reveal why terrain management should really always be applied in conjunction with snowpack evaluations, weather conditions observations, and avalanche forecasts. That reported, although by no signifies a foolproof approach, backcountry travelers who want to steer clear of avalanches significantly lower hazard by sticking to slopes beneath 30°.

Slope Angle and Avalanche Correlation: For the reason that slope steepness instantly correlates to avalanche exercise, savvy backcountry vacationers pay out close attention to slope angles. More than 90% of avalanches commence on slopes among 30° and 45° degrees. A 30° slope compares to a blue run at a ski space, while 45° slopes are observed on double black diamond runs. In other words, primary skiing terrain is also prime avalanche terrain. One important detail is that most avalanches start off on slopes between 30° and 45° degrees. Avalanches can be triggered remotely and run into decrease angle terrain, so it is vital to have a complete comprehending of runout zones.

Slope Angle Maps: Gaia GPS’ Slope Angle layer can aid you detect avalanche terrain. Slopes are shade-coded with their approximate steepness, with orange and pink denoting terrain concerning 30 and 45 levels.

The Inaccuracy of Slope Angle Maps: Retain in thoughts, slope shading is only “a depiction of reality.” The map will vary from the actual terrain. Avalanche start off zones like convexities or little pockets of steepness can escape detection. The mistake can be as high as 4 levels. The big difference amongst 26 and 30 levels, or 30 and 34 levels, can be a substantial maximize in risk publicity – examine out this distribution chart of avalanches by commence zone slope angle.

In January 2019, a tragic avalanche incident happened through an avalanche schooling course in Colorado. 1 contributing component was that the slopes the team traveled on ended up a several levels steeper than what the slope-shading approximated. To realize extra about how nuanced—and impactful—slope-angle readings can be, examine the complete accident report. For an even further discussion, see Jeff Deems’ presentation about how these map overlays are created from the 2019 Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop or the posting “Digital Mapping: Do You Know What Your Map Knows?” in September 2020 situation of The Avalanche Overview.

Extra Resources for Measuring Slope Angle: Slope angle maps are ideal employed for a major photo overview of terrain. To guarantee that you prevent 30°+ slopes, use a map in conjunction with a hands-on instrument, like a slope meter, for a far more accurate slope evaluation. That said, measuring by hand isn’t infallible either—to get an correct slope looking through with an inclinometer, you may have to expose you to the start off zone or the slide path.


Knowing topography allows differentiate extra hazardous, complex terrain from more simple, safer terrain. Determining commence zones, ridges, and gullies can aid you pick out harmless travel routes. Keep in mind that ridges are frequently safer destinations to journey.

How to Use Maps to Avoid Avalanche Danger

Onsite interpretation of terrain.

How to Use Maps to Avoid Avalanche Danger

Topo map with slope-angle shading of the spot in the photograph. Some case in point terrain functions are identified on the map.

Terrain Traps

Terrain traps amplify the outcomes of staying caught in an avalanche. Getting washed in excess of a cliff or into a stand of trees increases the chance of remaining hurt or killed because of to trauma—in addition to the hazard of becoming buried below the snow. Trauma will cause up to 30% of avalanche fatalities. Gullies and abrupt transitions to flat zones induce the snow to pile up bigger, meaning a target could be buried far more deeply, reducing the prospect of a prosperous rescue.

Carefully scout your supposed line for terrain traps with topo and satellite levels. Cliffs may perhaps be obvious on satellite levels, and will display up on topo maps as contour traces stacked extremely close collectively.

Avalanche Paths

Use satellite layers to recognize recognized avalanches paths that you may possibly want keep away from on your tour. Though avalanches can happen in a wide assortment of terrain, satellite maps typically expose signals of obvious avalanche paths such as open up slopes, sparse trees, and funnel-shaped terrain.

Make use of the Satellite Topo layer to enable discover ridges and drainages, which are from time to time perplexing on satellite photos.

Right after identifying an avalanche path, it is crucial to have a crystal clear knowing of avalanche runout angles. Though start off zones are generally around 30°, the momentum of a slide may possibly carry avalanche particles down gentle slopes, throughout flat expanses, and even up inclines, so be guaranteed to give oneself sufficient distance from the path. Hold in mind that in extremely unstable circumstances, avalanche paths could exceed the typical runout—taking out old trees or buildings and redefining the path.

Dietary supplement your assessment of avalanche paths with details and maps from, which delivers an atlas of common avalanche paths in common backcountry skiing spots.

Important factors to retain in mind prior to you venture into avalanche terrain:

Get avalanche security equipment. Observe adequately with your beacon, shovel, and probe just before you head into the discipline.
Get appropriate schooling. Employing maps is a dietary supplement to education and learning, not a substitution. Stop by to uncover an avalanche education course. Start off with the free of charge avalanche awareness and education and learning series “Know Prior to You Go.”
Study the avalanche forecast. From Colorado to Utah, Montana to Alaska, avalanche facilities present thorough nearby forecasts that define facets of worry and suitable avalanche complications. When you are on line or in just mobile variety, you can use the Avalanche Forecast layer to accessibility the comprehensive community forecast. Pull up the map to see what the danger rating is for the space you prepare to ski that working day. From the Avalanche Forecast map, click on on the shaded space to be able to access a website link that will just take you right to the community avalanche center’s internet site for far more info. Be guaranteed to browse the full forecast from the avalanche centre from the connection furnished on the map.
Health supplement the weather conditions forecast with Snow Forecast overlays to see what snow is expected to roll in all through your ski tour. Look at the Snow Stations (Everyday) map just before your vacation to get a day by day report on the amount of new snow that has fallen in the very last 24 hours and what the average water density looking through is for the new snow in the spot you prepare to visit.
Constantly vacation with a trustworthy husband or wife. Beacon, shovel, and probe are useless if you really don’t travel with a companion who is aware of how to use them.
System routes at residence. Organizing routes at dwelling is often a intelligent plan: you can use the desktop version of Gaia GPS, produce routes or import tracks from a mate, and print out maps just in case your mobile phone dies when you are in the area. You can also plot determination details, make backup strategies, and establish exit techniques. For more on backcountry route arranging, simply click listed here.

Best picture: Nikolay Hristov/Unsplash

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